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Celebrate summer with fresh peas

Peas, please. (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

How better to celebrate summer than with fresh peas from our local farmers? Sweet and tender, peas are one of the finest treats of our Adirondack summer (and spring in the rest of the country). All three varieties — the English shell peas, asian pod peas, and sturdy sugar snaps –are delicious, quick cooking and simple to prepare.

Fresh peas have a limited season and are a rarity in the supermarket. By the time they reach the store shelf, their sugar has turned to starch, and they have lost most of their sweetness. At room temperature, half their sugar content will turn to starch in a few hours, and they will become mealy. Refrigeration slows, but does not stop, this process. Therefore, 95% of commercially grown peas are canned, frozen or dried. In fact, peas were one of the first vegetables to be commercially canned by Campbell’s in 1870.

But brown, mushy canned peas do not compare in flavor or texture to the vibrant green, flavorful, crisp fresh peas. If you’ve never had fresh peas, you’re in for a treat.

Though peas are an ancient food, fresh garden or English peas were not known in Europe before the 14th century. Peas dating to 6000 BC have been found in Iraq, and to 3000 BC in the European Alps. The ancient Greeks and Romans grew peas. But these were what we know today as split peas rather than fresh green peas. During the Middle Ages, dried peas were a staple of the common people of common people in England and France. Abundant, inexpensive and wholesome, they could be stored for winter use. They were so widespread that they became a major part of European folklore; think of “The Princess and the Pea” by Hans Christian Andersen. Some traditional English dishes made with dried peas are Pease Pudding, Green Pea Cakes, Scottish Brose and split pea soup. American President Andrew Jackson was fond of Pease Pudding, which he liked seasoned with onions, cloves, carrots, celery, butter, nutmeg, sour cream, salt, pepper and sugar.

In Asia, fresh pod peas (snow peas) have been cultivated near the Thai-Burmese border for thousands of years. Today we enjoy fresh English peas as well as fresh snow peas and the most recent addition, fresh sugar snap peas.

There are more than 1,000 varieties which include the big “sub-categories” of yellow and green field peas (the kind usually sold dried), fresh shell peas (known as English, green or garden peas), as well as snap peas (like the sugar snap) and many varieties of snow peas, the pod peas often used in Chinese cooking.

All peas belong to the vegetable family of legumes. These plants harbor beneficial bacteria on their roots which enrich the soil with nitrogen. They produce pods with enclosed seeds. Pod peas (because you eat the pod) and shell peas (English peas) are nutritionally comparable. They have about 45 calories per cup and are a good source of fiber, vitamins A and C, B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin and niacin), vitamin K, and minerals iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc. Like other legumes, they are a good plant source of protein, low in fat, and contain ample fiber and carbohydrates.

To prepare pod peas, simply remove the strings, beginning at the tip and pulling down the straightest side towards the stem end; pinch off the stem and continue pulling on the other side. Rinse in a colander and let drain for a few minutes.

They’re great raw as a snack or appetizer, especially with dip, and add crispness, color and variety to salads and cooked dishes. Blanching for just 30 seconds brings out their vivid green and heightens their crispness — but be sure not to overcook. Stir-fry them briefly with a little pork or chicken and serve over rice or another grain. They’re also cut into salads — whether green salads, pasta salads, potato or grain salads.

When buying shell peas, look for pods that are full, shiny, crisp, and green, with a velvety feel. Move them around; the peas should rattle a bit in the pod. Avoid pods that are very large, puffy, dulled, yellowed or dry. You will need a lot; a pound of pod peas will yield only about a cup when shelled. But don’t buy too much at once; it’s best to eat them the day you buy them. Keep them refrigerated and in the pods until you plan to use them.

To use, rinse the pods, then pinch off the top and pull the string to open. You can push out peas clinging to the pod with your finger. They can be eaten raw, steamed or cooked in the microwave. They cook quickly; three to five minutes should be enough. A classic French method is to cook or rather steam them in a nest of lettuce leaves. Avoid using salt in the cooking process, as it toughens the peas. If you want to season them, do so after they’re cooked, with a little butter and salt, or fresh herbs.

English peas are delicious freshly picked, stripped from their pods, steamed quickly and tossed with some sweet butter and just a pinch of salt. Because peas are legumes, they go great mixed into all types of grain salads — like rice, quinoa and barley. Eaten that way, they are a complete protein.

Barley and Pea Salad

This can be served warm as a main dish or chilled for a main dish salad. Barley & peas make a complete protein so it is a vegan main dish. If you wish, you can also add hard cooked chopped egg and / or feta cheese for additional protein. Both pod peas and English shell peas work great in this salad. You may want to steam the shell peas for a couple minutes – or not. Or add to the barley during the last 2- 3 minutes of cooking.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup barley

1 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

freshly squeezed juice from 1/2 lemon

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric (optional)

2 tablespoons torn mint leaves

2 Tablespoons fresh minced parsley

2 Tablespoons fresh minced chives

3 or 4 garlic scapes, sliced 1/4″ thick

8 ounces sugar snap peas, snow peas, or English peas – or some of each

1 carrot, shredded or chopped into matchsticks

Optional ingredients: hard cooked eggs and / or crumbled feta cheese

Directions:

In medium saucepan, combine barley, water, and salt. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer. Cover, and cook until liquid is absorbed and barley is tender. This will depend on the type of barley you’re using, so check package directions (10 – 12 minutes for quick cooking barley; 20 minutes for pearl barley; longer for hulled barley). Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.

While barley cooks, chop the herbs, shred the carrot and string the peas. You can use the peas raw or blanch them briefly.

To blanch peas: Have ready a large bowl of ice water, a slotted spoon, and a plate lined with a cloth or paper towel. Bring a pan of water to boil over high heat. Add a teaspoon of salt and the snap peas and boil just until bright green and crisp, 30 – 50 seconds. Quickly remove the snap peas with a slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice bath. When the peas are completely cool, remove them from the ice bath and drain on the towel-lined plate. Cut the snap peas lengthwise on the diagonal into 1-inch or 2-inch lengths. Set aside.

Assemble salad: When barley has finished cooking, stir in the olive oil, salt, turmeric and pepper. Cool slightly and stir in lemon zest, lemon juice and chopped fresh herbs (garlic scapes, parsley, chives and mint). Stir in peas and carrot. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

Serve immediately, or chill covered in the refrigerator.

Serves 4.

Orzo with Peas and Carrots

Ingredients:

1 cup orzo pasta

1 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon butter

1 or 2 carrots (1 cup, diced)

1 cup shelled peas (discard pods)

1 cup fresh snow peas (discard strings)

2 Tablespoons minced fresh dill or parsley

Additional salt & butter

Directions:

Bring water with salt to a boil. Add orzo and cook according to package directions, about 8 minutes. Add peas during last 2 minutes of cooking.

In the meantime, melt butter in large skillet. Chop carrot, and add to skillet. Cook 3 – 4 minutes. String and rinse the snow peas, add and cook just a minute longer.

Mince the parsley and set aside.

Drain orzo and green peas, and add to skillet with carrots and snow peas. Stir in fresh minced parsley. Taste and add a little salt and / or butter if need.

Option: Use Israeli couscous in place of orzo pasta. Or try this with a grain, like barley, rice, millet or quinoa instead of pasta.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com, yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Words are my world.

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